Excitement was feverish as everybody gathered down by the lake. We usually had an idea of what was going on most evenings – especially if it was to do with the whole camp – but tonight the uncertainty was part of the thrill.
A group of ‘henchmen’ (the most muscular counselors) arrived at the lake wearing white and black face paint, which made them look like skeletons. They were terrifying, intriguing and yet familiar all at the same time. This was ‘Revival’ – where these ‘henchmen’ would read various poems that described some of the most popular campers and counselors. As one read, the others began scouting out the victims who would be collected, carried and ultimately thrown into the lake. I was so engaged with what was going on and enjoying being part of the buzz with my group of campers that it was only when they came up close that I realised… they were coming for me!
Breaking up with home
Three months beforehand I would never have dreamt of being thrown into a cold lake in the middle of the mountains – let alone thoroughly enjoying it! But that’s the great thing about summer camps in the USA; you shed all inhibitions and do things that you would never think of doing back at home.
Having always been a bit of a ‘home-body’, I was always reluctant to go too far afield from the familiarity of my hometown, Leamington Spa, and the fondness I had developed for my new lifestyle at Loughborough University. All that changed in February 2008.
I had broken up with my boyfriend the year before. One year on, I was still heart-broken, so a friend encouraged me to attend a CCUSA event.
I’d never considered myself to be the sort of person that could just simply board a plane and head off somewhere for three months, with no clue of what to expect or what would happen. But I figured that perhaps this was just what I needed to get me out of my slump.
The night before I was due to fly, panic flooded me from head-to-toe. Perhaps I can just not go? What if I get there and make NO friends? How am I going to cope being away from everybody I know for three months? All of these thoughts and many more sent my mind into over-drive. I genuinely didn’t think I could do it and on the way to Heathrow, I just kept telling myself that if I was miserable I could just get a plane home.
Yet, the more it sank in, the more I actually realised that what I was saying was right: so what if I hated it the second I landed? So what if I made no friends? So what if I realised that this was the biggest regret of my life? I had a flight booked that could be changed for £35. The only real regret would be to not go at all.
As soon as I got to the airport, I met fifty other people who were there for the exact same reasons as me, and I even found one person who was going to work at the same camp as me in Pennsylvania – amazing! Immediately, all worries I had vanished.
Coming to America
The morning after landing we broke off into our camps and got on to the appropriate buses. Here I met my camp BBF, Elle. Immediately we hit it off, gossiping for so long we were interrupted by the driver who informed us we had arrived.
Island Lake Camp. This would be my home for the foreseeable future. It was located in the Pocono Mountains in the northeastern part of Pennsylvania; it had two beautiful lakes, which had water-sport activities on a daily basis, along with 550 acres of land. It was idyllic, stunning and serene… until the abundance of campers arrived, anyway.
Now you’re probably wondering what you actually do when you’re at a camp, essentially in the middle of nowhere, for 9 weeks? Generally, you’ll be allocated a bunk (cabin) with another two counselors, and between you are responsible for looking after a group of 11-15 campers. In addition to this, the great thing about camp is that there’s a lot of structure and pretty much a daily routine to follow.
Every morning I, along with the entire camp, would wake up to the PA system announcing “Everyboddddyyyy, up, up, up! It’s a beautiful day in Starrucca, PA. Breakfast in ten minutes. See you there!”
I was expected to sit with my girls every breakfast, lunch and dinner and bond with them, helping them choose what options they wanted to take for the day. I would often try and encourage them to try a variety of new things. But a lot of them chose to do water-sports. Who could blame them? Having fun out on a beautiful lake in 28 degrees with gorgeous sunshine was an obvious choice!
My main job at camp was coaching gymnastics – out of five hours of activities, one of those was then allocated as a “free” period. I initially thought I would be using this to check emails, phone my parents, and do anything that would take me back to my home life. This was not the case.
Instead, I would go and try my hand at horseback riding, kayaking, and one occasion, circus. It was so great having the freedom to try so many new things that I would never have even considered at home. But having met someone there, I also opted to go and visit him over in Orienteering, where he was based.
I was becoming increasingly surprised at how little I was suffering from homesickness. With so much going on, there wasn’t much time for it.
Land of the free, indeed
Over the 9 weeks, we each had 5 full days off where we could go wherever we liked. I used to go to New York for the day or Philadelphia with friends, but other times we were happy to just relax by the lake and soak in the glorious sun. This is how I spent my last of these days, when Color War began.
Color War. Possibly the most competitive, energetic and chaotic three days I have ever experienced. Three full days where the camp is divided into two, with a theme (mine was Land vs. Sea). The camp becomes somewhat of an Olympic arena – campers are competing in track and field events, pie-eating contests, assault courses, dance-offs, rap battles and probably just about every other thing you can think of, to decide ultimately who is going to win and dominate the camp. If you think you are a relaxed, calm and quiet person, think again. Color War brings out a side of you that will make doing the most ridiculous of tasks seem so significant! Even looking back now, I get so saddened that my team was so close to winning but just fell at the last hurdle!
Color War, along with Revival, activities, “Lazy Days”, water-sports, horse-riding, golf, football (or, rather, ‘soccer’), theatre, orienteering, camping, zip-lining and many more, are just a handful of reasons why you should work at a summer camp. But for me, the most I got out of it are lifelong friends.
From the second I unpacked to the end of my time at Camp, I always had somebody to talk to. During the early stages you socialize and get to know your other co-workers. The beauty of being stuck in the middle of the mountains is your number one choice of entertainment is interacting with others. Within seconds of speaking to someone new you forget about anyone else, regardless of where in the world they may be.
I spent the months before camp wondering whether I had made the right decision, asking myself if this was something I could do. But by the end of it, the only issues I faced were: how feasible was it for me to visit many of my newfound friends? Would I be able to extend my trip? Could I afford to fly around the States? I was having to turn down offers, unlike the initial worry I had that I wouldn’t have a single friend.
My time at camp didn’t just have short-term effects, either. It made me a stronger, independent and braver person than I could ever imagine. Sure, there will always be people out there who don’t even blink at the idea of travelling, or flying solo. But for those of you who wonder if this is for you, or whether you could cope, I promise – you can!
Daniela Rodriguez is 27 years of age and currently works as an English teacher in Leamington Spa. Having caught the travel bug, she always tries to use her summer holidays to her best advantage. This has seen her explore incredible places like the States, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Mexico, and Europe. This summer she is heading back to her second home, America, to explore Miami, New Orleans, and Boston. She’s also booked a cheeky trip to Ibiza!